Guest blog: Why it took me years to read 'Angela's Ashes'

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I could tell I was on the flight to Washington, DC because everybody was reading. “Poli sci dorks,” my brother would say of the demographics of my adopted city, and I had to admit, as I buckled my seatbelt and cracked open my own book, that he had a point.

Although I was one of the few people who wasn’t reading politics or history. I couldn’t wrest the Sarah Palin autobiography out of my mother’s hands before I left our Thanksgiving gathering, and I didn’t quite have the stomach yet to tackle Too Big To Fail," which I’ve fingered in the bookstore so often I’ve left grease marks.

No, I was determined to read one of the books that has been sitting on my shelf for years now, eying me accusingly every time I bring home another stack from the library or tear open a package from Amazon. It wasn’t that it was a bad book – it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it was on the New York Times bestseller list for months.  (Although, if truth be told, that was one of the reasons I’d been avoiding it: in my own snobbish literary mind, 4 million readers can be wrong.) It just hadn’t grabbed me. I’d read the first three pages on two separate occasions and both times I’d gotten stuck in some dense and descriptive prose.

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It turns out those pages are the only ones in "Angela's Ashes" that drag. Then McCourt takes off. Or, rather, he burrows in, settling in so thoroughly to his damp and poor Irish childhood that the reader feels as if she’s climbed in bed with the family and is swatting fleas.

When I came to the end of the last page, I sighed with pleasure and turned to my neighbor in the window seat, who was engrossed in her own book: Annie Proulx’s "The Shipping News," another that has sat on my shelf collecting dust and righteous indignation for want of a compelling opening.

Already I was repenting. "Angela's Ashes" had been such a treasure that I was perfectly willing to believe I’d been too hasty in all my condemning literary judgments.

“Do you like that book?” I asked the woman.

She lifted her head. “No,” she said. “I hate the plot, I hate the writing, and I hate all but two of the characters. But it’s been sitting on my shelf for years and I’m determined to read it.”

She dropped her gaze and returned to her task. I slid "Angela's Ashes" into the seat pouch in front of her. “You might try this one,” I said quietly. “It was a New York Times bestseller.”

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. 

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